Three Things You Didn't Know About The History Of Photography

What are some of the most interesting things about the history of photography? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Sarah Meister, Curator, Department of Photography, MoMA, on Quora.

There are so many! But I'll begin with three:

1) For a variety of reasons (cultural, economic, social, technical), throughout the history of the medium a significant percentage of the greatest photographers have been women. In fact, it is possible to tell a coherent history of photography featuring only women artists: in 2010 I organized Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography (with two of my colleagues at MoMA) that did just this. There is a series of audio commentaries by and about artists included in the exhibition that Quora readers might enjoy. (I also wrote a blog post about the show.) In 1971 Linda Nochlin provocatively posed the question, "Why have there been no great women artists?" pointing to a structural bias in the definition of "artist" that overlooked achievements in fields such as photography.

2) The dialogue between photographs made for practical purposes and those intended by their creators to be works of art is uniquely vibrant and significant in the history of photography. MoMA collects and exhibits photographs across this spectrum, and I confess I'm often more interested in historical works that might be described as vernacular: snapshots, commercial assignments, news photos, studio portraits... everything other than self-consciously artistic objects.

3) I've been working at MoMA for a long time now, and there are still aspects of photography's history that surprise and amaze me. I mentioned Gertrudes Altschul in a question about lesser-known photographs: in the 1950s she was a member of an incredibly inventive group in São Paulo called the Foto Cine Clube Bandeirante. As extraordinary as her individual achievement remains, I'm struck by the great number of talented amateur photographers associated with the group whose names were unknown to me even a year ago, and the dynamic contemporary network in which they operated that was in active dialogue with photographers around the world whose work I have long admired, such as Otto Steinert and his Fotoform group in Germany.

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